I do not understand how Succession does it, but week to week, the Roys go from being loathsome and detestable and frankly absolutely the goddamn worst to the kind of relatable and tragic that makes me thankful I have people in my life who I know and love, and who know and love me back, and who wouldn’t, say, give me a tremendously impersonal gift for my birthday, or use my birthday party to further their careers, or re-enact the physically abusive dynamic of our childhood with me as their victim. I guess I am really lucky to not have to experience those things!
Sure, Kendall Roy is sitting on $2 billion worth of stock and he probably spent an ungodly amount on this birthday party, with its recreation of his mother’s vagina, the compliment tunnel, a mimicry of the treehouse from his childhood, the Tiny Wu-Tang Clan, whatever licensing rights he had to pay Billy Joel for that planned (and thankfully canceled) crucified performance of “Honesty,” on and on and on. And also sure, we have seen Kendall to be self-serving, selfish, delusional, cruel, dismissive, ignorant, negligent—he is not a good person!
But jeez, was “Too Much Birthday” an emotional battering ram of an episode, a glimpse into the lonely and alone mind of Kendall Roy, into the childhood he feels he never got, the endless competition he feels against his siblings, and the messiah complex he’s so internalized. Logan didn’t need to come to the party, but his specter lingered over it anyway—and came to life in Roman, who now firmly is in the “Damn, dude, really?” category of bad behavior on this show. The final few minutes of “Too Much Birthday” make me uncomfortable to even think about for the contrasting array of agendas and emotions pushed forward, and for how the series again switch up our perceived heroes and villains in this story.
Roman took a giggling leap toward fascism last week and takes a smirking dive into straight-up assholeness this week. Shiv, for some reason, is still doing her father’s bidding (even as he could not have been clearer in “What It Takes” that he doesn’t respect her), and she’s getting outplayed over and over by her younger brother. Tom, now potentially free from prison time, is realizing that maybe sticking with the barely tolerant Shiv isn’t actually a good thing. Connor and Willa are continuing to play at President and First Lady; let them have their fun, I guess.
And that brings us back to Kendall, who yes, I think is a joke. The tragic kind, though, the “But Doctor, I am Pagliacci” kind. I can’t help but feel sorry for this poor bastard, even if he is a true “eat the rich” mascot, for how much contempt, disinterest, and resignation comes his way from the people in his life. Jeremy Strong plays this character so well, with so many layers of woundedness and vulnerability and pompousness and greed, and screenwriters Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett really put him through it here.
He is so happy Connor, Shiv, and Roman all come to his party, and so irritated when they don’t respond in exactly the way he wants. He projects all of his own crap onto Greg, whom he calls a parasite who feeds on his own family, and then he gets upset at Naomi when she, admittedly, gets him a weirdly detached gift. Why not just give him hash and a lathe? Seems pretty straightforward! This whole party is a reminder that no one with whom Kendall has surrounded himself genuinely cares, and he’s burned numerous bridges, and he’s tested nearly everyone’s patience.
But: What is the baseline level of kindness and empathy with which we should treat other people? Roman’s shove of the brother who defended him from his father’s physical abuse, and his ensuing laughter, is a real mask-off moment. Have ambition and success really curdled Roman so much? Director Lorene Scafaria does a great job guiding us into this party space, and—as she did in Hustlers—threading the needle between money as something that frees you and money as something that traps you.
The silly stuff, like Kendall trying to force people to give up their coats and offering them cashmere sweaters instead, or Roman and Alexander Skarsgård’s Lukas peeing on the phone taking forever to load Waystar Royco’s Stargo app. The absurd stuff, like the gigantic modern-art pieces that Kendall commissioned that show his siblings’ demises and Comfry’s description of an apartment full of He-Man lunchboxes, with accompanying receipts. And the dispiriting stuff: the Roy siblings listing all the people who weren’t there to celebrate with Kendall, and Kendall’s frantic and failed search through his presents room as he tried to find whatever Iverson and Sophie made him. I don’t want to feel this bad for Kendall, but I do! I am weak!
When “Too Much Birthday” starts, though, Kendall is full-on awful, planning his party as an exercise in “pure excess,” one that if he starts “second-guessing, it collapses.” “It’s gonna be epic,” Kendall insists, and the whole thing is like 18 different layers of irony, post-irony, and post-post-irony—enough elaborate silliness to give a philosophy grad school student a headache. (Never forget that Kendall thinks of himself as a man of the people, and so the party will be “highly egalitarian” for the working staff, as long as you “do your job.” A truly amazing little detail that harkens back to what we know Kendall did to a member of Shiv’s wedding’s wait staff in season one.)
The Roy siblings don’t plan on attending Kendall’s birthday, until Lukas—the inventor of Gojo, the streaming technology they’re trying to acquire—bails on a meeting with Logan. Since he’s on the birthday RSVP list, Roman, Shiv, and Tom decide to attend, with the former two trying to worm their way into discussing business (explicitly against Kendall’s wises, of course).
Kendall’s party is a mess: overpacked, overdesigned, overwrought. (Shout out to Justine Lupe for her perfect exasperated line delivery of “Immersive theater. I could have consulted, but whatever.”) “THE NOTORIOUS KEN: READY TO DIE,” reads the sign out front, and when the Roy siblings get inside, it’s all the same power grabbing and undermining as always. Shiv is on the outside, unaware that Logan and Roman have worked up an offer for Kendall’s shares: “Cash out and fuck off,” says the “It’s a nice thing” card Roman hands over, and Kendall, an idiot, doesn’t immediately decide to take the money and start his life anew. Instead, he mopes, telling Naomi and Rava about the offer (notice how both of them respond with the same sort of bemused politeness) and seemingly considering it, but then letting it spin him into a tizzy.
Is this really how Logan would win? Is this how close Roman is getting to the top seat, that he’s making secret deals with Daddy? And Shiv is infuriated, too, although I’m not sure why, since it’s pretty clear that Logan barely tolerates her presence, and that she really has no skills to offer Waystar Royco. Her nitpicking of Roman’s Gojo presentation really was embarrassing, and if there’s something we know about Shiv, she does not deal well with embarrassment. That’s why her Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You dance breakdown after learning of Logan and Roman’s secret share-buyout deal was so noteworthy: Shiv is angry enough that she’s making herself available for mockery, and that’s not a good sign.
Meanwhile, Roman continues his come-up, bonding with “Odin of Coding” Lukas over the crappiness of Stargo, promising that Lukas will never have to deal with Logan but will instead interact only with him if agrees to sell Gojo (a smart play), and then straight-up gloating about his achievement to his siblings. Kieran Culkin has always been great at smarm, but this is straight-up ugliness—cruel in the same way that Kendall was in that sibling meeting at Rava’s house.
To be true, Roman has an array of bad influences to choose from; Logan and Kendall have both done some phenomenally nasty things to each other over the years. And Roman molding himself in their image by thinking up moves and countermoves, and by not caring that Waystar Royco is spying on Kendall’s children and trying to involve them in the power struggle, and by trying to transfer all the bad things Logan did to him to Kendall so Roman can feel good about how close he’s getting to his father, well. It was only a matter of time. “You’re not a real person. You’re not real,” Kendall says, and to be fair, Roman’s humanity right now is pretty low! “I am the only child you’ll ever need. You can kill the others. Love you!” was a parade full of yikes.
As the Roy siblings implode, let’s pivot to Tom, who seems like he has a second chance at life now that Gerri heard from new beau Laurie that the Department of Justice investigation is weakening after Kendall’s poor interview with them. They think Waystar Royco’s greatest punishment will be “just a number,” which means Tom won’t go to prison—Logan says he will remember Tom’s offer, but until then, that means Tom and Greg are off the hook. Note that Tom doesn’t celebrate his imminent freedom with wife Shiv, but sashays himself down to Greg’s office, goes full ape on Greg’s desk and file cabinets, and then ends the altercation with a gentle kiss on Greg’s forehead. And yet old patterns die hard.
Tom wants to celebrate but can’t quite manage it (much like his bachelor party): He asks for permission from Shiv, he resents Greg for seeming happier than he is. At the end of the day, Tom might not go to jail after all—but is it crazy to think he actually might have been looking forward to it? It’s not like his marriage to Shiv is successful. It’s not like he has a lot of power in the current Roy sibling battle. It’s not like his role at ATN is really important. And if you transfer all that stuff to Shiv, it also applies. Her marriage to Tom isn’t successful. She has no power against Roman. And her role at Waystar Royco is a joke. “I think the party’s over, yeah?” is the last line of “Too Much Birthday,” and it applies to not just Kendall but Tom and Shiv, too. Maybe Kendall went after the wrong member of that marriage with his offer.
- If Iverson and Sophie are using rabbit-themed wrapping paper, does that mean the rabbit survived the bagel incident? I am hopeful!
- I had wondered a few weeks ago what Naomi’s endgame was and what drew her to Kendall, and I am still wondering that! Is this just a relationship where the shared wealth and shared addiction keep them united? And even if that is the case, Naomi couldn’t think of any gift more personal or more tied to whatever months they’ve spent together? Even inspired by an inside joke or something? Bad form, Naomi.
- So many bomber jackets in this episode, and so much satin! Michelle Matland really went all out.
- Karl singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”—I would pay money to watch that character watch Logan Lucky. I feel like he would be into it!
- “We’re going after Pierce again?” [insert Wee-Bey-shocked.gif]
- I really enjoy how every opinion Kerry has is clearly just something Logan said before that she’s now repeating back to him. I guess that’s one way to keep the man happy.
- Pop culture writer Emma Fraser noticed that the necklace Kendall is wearing in this episode, from the Rashid Johnson “Anxious Men” collection, is the same one Strong has been wearing on red carpets. Too much merging of actor and character, man!
- “Where’s Tabs?” Caitlin FitzGerald hasn’t appeared at all in season three, right? I sort of assumed they broke offscreen after “Dundee”?
- At this point, lines like “I got a dick the size of a Red Sequoia and I fuck like a bullet train” and “Prove it” are just fuel for the fan fic writers, and that’s absolutely fine.
- The fact that Stewy was allegedly at this party but Arian Moayed did not appear in this episode—we are being cheated!
- A lot of great things in those newspaper front pages that Kendall had made for the party, from Shiv being described only as the “wife of Tom Wambsgans” (her nightmare!) to another story about Connor taking Roman and Kendall camping. Were those early trips what inspired Connor’s “I can flee my family by embracing nature” ideology?
- It would have been nice to have more Skarsgård in this episode, but he certainly made an impact with only a few minutes. Everyone loved his “When will your father die?” from the season trailer, but now that we’ve seen more of him, I prefer his deadpan “I am not” in response to Kendall’s question about whether he was having fun, and his “privacy, pussy, pasta,” which was delightful.